The Lyrics, the Messages, and the Life of Howard Ashman

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Howard Ashman recently. For the book I’m working on I’ve been revisiting The Little Mermaid and, with the live-action Beauty and the Beast released this weekend, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the original animated film too. A lot of Ashman’s songs are the soundtrack to my childhood. They connected with me for reasons I wouldn’t figure out until I was much older, but they still remain some of my favourite songs of all time.

Ashman was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1950. He studied at Boston University and Goddard College, and received a Masters from Indiana University in the mid-seventies. He moved to New York in 1974 and began writing plays then, in 1977, took a job as the Artistic Director for the WPA Theatre. It was in 1982, however, that Ashman got his big break with Little Shop of Horrors, where Ashman wrote the lyrics while his life-long career collaborator, Alan Menken, wrote the music. The off-Broadway musical premiered in 1982 to rave reviews. The plot, based on an old sci-fi B-movie, follows a young man, Seymour, as he deals with a man-eating plant. The musical played for five years, and has been performed all over the world and is popular with high schools.

Ashman’s personal life and his work were strongly connected. In the song Somewhere That’s Green Audreythe female lead, sings about escaping to a better place, to get away from Skid-Row to a place where she can be with Seymour at last, in an ideal American home, and can live the lush American family life she longs for. Ashman was with his long-term partner, Bill Lauch, from 1973 and it’s not hard to see after nearly 10 years with a man he loved that he might crave what Audrey does. Things like…

A matchbox of our own / A fence of real chain link /A grill out on the patio / Disposal in the sink / A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine / In a tract house that we share / Somewhere that’s green.

All of which are fairly normal yet to Audrey, a woman in an abusive relationship and living on the wrong side of town, they’re everything she doesn’t have but desperately wants. They might also be everything a gay man, who has been denied normality.

In 1986 Little Shop of Horrors was adapted for the screen. Directed by Frank Oz and starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, and Billy Murray, the film was a minor success and has become a cult-classic as the years went on. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe and two Oscars including a Best Original Song nomination for Ashman, along with Menken, but he lost out to ‘Take Your Breath Away’ from Top Gun.

When Ashman was coming off Little Shop of Horrors he was in high demand. All of his projects were laid out in front of him, one of which was the Tina Turner biopic, but he chose to do an animated musical about a little mermaid.

When Ashman took the job at Disney he was different from everyone else in the animation department. The animators considered themselves to have nothing in common with this Jewish, gay, musical theatre fan who was now working closely with them. But, Ashman has a very clear vision of what Disney animation could be. He gathered all the animators and writers together into one small screening room to explain his thought process, how he was going to work, what the animated musical could be. He gave an oral history of the American musical and the Disney animated film, and how they intersected and how he believed the two mediums were intrinsically connected. In that small room, Ashman sold the idea that the Disney animated movies, moving forward, should be musicals. This was the beginning of what many call the ‘Disney Renaissance.’

Though, his work at Disney differed from his work on Little Shop of Horrors he still infused himself into his lyrics. When he was working on The Little Mermaid Ashman was diagnosed with Aids. This new way of life, when teamed with the similar themes from Little Shop of Horrors, gives Part of Your World whol a new significance. At the time Aids was ignored by the mainstream, a lot of people were dying and they were being shunned and ignored. Some even saw it as ‘Gods Gift to Fags’. So when you look at the lyrics in this light it changes their meaning…

Up where they walk, up where they run / Up where they stay all day in the sun / Wanderin’ free, wish I could be / Part of that world

There’s a strong desire here to be somewhere you’re not, to be part of a world that you love but can’t get to, that is so affecting. It really resonated with me as a young gay kid in a small town with no other gay people I could see. These lyrics show anguish, pain, desire, inquiry, hope, dreams, and everything in between. A true example of people expressing themselves through their art.

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The Little Mermaid was a huge success and won Ashman and Menken their first Oscars for the song ‘Under the Sea’. It was after their Oscar win that Ashman confided in Menken that he was ill. Though he was getting weaker each day, and it was becoming clearer to Ashman that he would be one of many gay men that were dying daily, he still continued to work.

Freshly minted with their academy awards Ashman and Menken continued work on what would become their crowning glory and, unfortunately, Ashman’s swan song: Beauty and the Beast. Ashman was getting sicker each day, and he was still as involved with Beauty and the Beast as he had been with another work before. Though, one thing he began to notice, as he wrote the lyrics for them film, was that he didn’t think the Beast was getting a fair look in. The script, as it stood then, focused largely on Belle. After all, with the success of the female led The Little Mermaid that made sense. However, Ashman found a kinship with the Beast. Someone who was misunderstood, and away from society. The director of the new live action remake, Bill Condon, spoke of Ashman’s involvement with the original. He said Ashman saw the Beast as a metaphor for Aids. ‘[The Beast] was cursed,’ Condon said of Ashman’s interpretation, ‘and this curse had brought sorrow on all those people who loved him, and maybe there was a chance for a miracle—and a way for the curse to be lifted. It was a very concrete thing that he was doing.’

f18736121f81b2e0b48e57ae09607240.jpgHis lyrics to ‘The Mob Song’ are probably the clearest example of how Ashman’s thoughts crept into the music. As the townsfolk, egged on by Gaston, form a mob complete with torches and pitchforks to storm the Beasts castle they sing this:

We don’t like / What we don’t understand / In fact, it scares us / And this monster is mysterious at least. 

As the film neared the final stretches Ashman was forced to work from home. The head of Disney at the time paid for a twenty-four hour private Nurse for Ashman so he would be comfortable as he worked. His deteriorating condition meant that people flew out to Ashman to work on his lyrics.

Ashman died on the 14th March 1991 at the age of 40 from Aids-related complications. He died just a few months before the premiere of Beauty and the Beast later that year. The film would go on to be an instant classic. It would go to be the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and it would win Ashaman a posthumous Oscar for the titular song. He became the first person to die from Aids to win an Oscar and his partner, Bill Lauch, accepted the award on his behalf.

Ashman’s achievements didn’t end with his death. He was nominated for another Oscar for his lyrics to ‘Friend Like Me’ from Aladdin, which he’d just started work on before his death. He was nominated for three Tony Awards after his death for his lyrics in the stage adaptions of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin (three of the songs from the movie were written by Ashman and songs he wrote that were cut from the film were added to the stage show. One of which, Proud of Your Boy, has become a modern broadway standard. And, if you want to look at another song that Ashman filled with personal experience then look no further than this stunning ballad about the desire to live up to the expectations your parents have for you. Actually, I’m going to post it underneath this because it’s just a lovely song).

Ashman is a legend of film and stage. A man who infused his art with a personal flare that gave it a resonance that cannot be denied. A man who revolutionised the animated musical and fought to do so. A man Roy Disney called ‘another Walt’ because without him, and this is no understatement, Disney would not be where it is today.

On a personal note, I grew up with Disney movies and they shaped my childhood from The Little Mermaid onwards. Without Ashman I wouldn’t have had that same experience. So, for that I thank him.

On his grave in Baltimore there is an engraving: ‘Oh, that he had one more song to sing.’ We might not get to hear that song because Ashman was taken far too soon, but he left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire many who come after him.

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